Life, the Universe and Everything look closer from #italylockdown

 

If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.

Let’s start with the worst

Here are tree pictures that summarize how bad it can become, all coming from the province of Bergamo. This is what the entrance of their hospitals looks like:

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This is an exit, instead:

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Those are all Army trucks, waiting to pick up coffins. Some coffins then fill empty churches, while waiting for burials:

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The list of small towns completely locked down now includes Fondi, about 40K residents in lower Lazio. Which wouldn’t be special news, if Fondi were not a major distribution hub for fresh agricultural products, for Central and Southern Italy.

You don’t want all this at home, I suppose.

How are we doing after ten days of lockdown?

Return to schools has been just been further postponed at least until Easter. Some experts declared less than two months lockdowns would not accomplish anything. Further restrictions to people movements have been just announced, mostly thanks to the Mother of Cretins (see below). While I write this, a Carabinieri helicopter is flying over my roof, with speakers blasting warnings that recreational walks are not allowed.

Public judgment on the opportunity to let an italian company sell 500K testing kits to the US is… suspended, for now.

By far the weirdest moment of the week was watching Germans show their solidarity with Italy, by singing… “Bella Ciao”, of all songs: a hymn of the partisans fighting Nazists in 1943-45. Not bad. But weird, really.

Life goes on, and overall it’s still OK, outside the worst areas. Toilet paper shortages? Nah. Much less than you could imagine anyway, for reasons so obvious that even Wired explains them now:

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I wrote earlier that lockdown strengthens family bonds. This being Italy, how could this not involve soccer? State TV has started reruns of all the best matches ever played by the Azzurri, but that’s not the only resource:

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“Going back in time twenty years, to play FIFA99 with dad on a Playstation 1: priceless”

For most students, the shutdown of schools and Universities has just moved interactive lessons online, not delayed them. Or lunch, for that matter :-) :

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Click for a close-up of those delicious red bell pepper rigatoni

Shopping

Today I went out after one week, to buy groceries and some medicines. I opened my door thinking “THIS may be the time I get Coronavirus”. Situation is calm, overall. Most open stores have never-seen-before, un-Italian tape signs on the floor, showing the distance to keep in line:

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I had left home wearing disposable gloves. At the supermarket entrance, the guard dispensing gloves to patrons made me wear those too:

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Hazmat, I am

Some supermarkets want customers to buy only food, not unessential stuff like toys, or school supplies, to have people crowded inside as little as possible. Tension ensues whenever someone objects “I have kids to keep sane in 20 square meters, isn’t that essential?”

Today store opening hours were shortened, at least in the Lazio Region. Another order allows bakeries in Rome that are still open to keep selling pizza, but with no more than oil, and tomato sauce. The reason seems to be the need to avoid daily resupplies of fresh food. Goodbye mozzarella.

Amazon OK. So far

Amazon may have suspended all non-essential shipments in US and UK until April, driving many small sellers to bankrupt. Here, I avoided to buy “non-essential” stuff, because it doesn’t feel right to make others go around unless I really need something. But friends tell me that they are still receiving stuff regularly.

Four days ago, however, the staff of the Amazon warehouse in Piacenza (Northern Italy) went on strike to protest against lack of anti-Coronavirus measures. In the past, Amazon always won these fights, but this is the first time that they may extend, as quickly as a virus, to all its warehouses in a whole continent. Keep an eye on that.

Weddings??

I wrote that they have been suspended. But my sister in law reports a couple of newlyweds, wedding gown, tuxedo and all, walking hand in hand in her street. After some investigation I assume, and hope, that they were another couple that managed to tie the knot through a glass, like this one around Milan:

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Why not? Life goes on, and honeymoons will hardly be more intimate and affordable than they would be at home now.

The mother of cretins…

Occasionally, social networks emphatize socioeconomical divides. You left the city to find haven in your seaside home? Fine, but please don’t post how hard it is to be locked on a sundeck.

Speaking of sensible people, yesterday the Major of Rome had to go with guards to drive out too many runners still gathering in a city park. Majors in Bari and other cities have the same problem.

Banks are sending emails warning against phishing attempts masked as Coronavirus communications. Website and apps for self-certification of one’s need to leave home have appeared, but they are half useless, half phishing.

The mother of cretins is always pregnant, we say here. And the mother of digital looters too.

Repatriation Catch-22

The state aid package announced days ago includes half a billion Euros to nationalize Alitalia again, after it burned several billions of (also public) money for at least twelve years. Now Alitalia is working hard to set up special flights to help Italians abroad return home, in a way that drives me mad, and caused a formal complaint from a local consumer association. They won’t let you board the plane for which they accepted your money, unless you wear a mask. Very sensible, until you read this real customer comment on Alitalia’s Facebook page:

” I am in France, where there is a shortage of masks, and one cannot have them now without a doctor’s prescription. So what if I can’t find a mask?”

So, Italians abroad can fly back home to safety, from places less equipped to fight the pandemics, if they find there equipment to fight the pandemic.

Of course, the real question here is “Why don’t airlines, airports and governments worldwide partner, to provide ONE mask to everyone who NEEDS to flight these days?”

Public aid. For whom?

After some initial blunders, the European Central Bank and the EU Commission have announced huge plans to fight the pandemics and the economic recession. The italian government had already announced big spending for the same purposes. Alitalia employees are happy, but not buying masks for passengers. Me, I have already received five or six emails from my accountant explaining what all this means in practice. Almost none of them seems to apply to freelancers like me, or to two millions of babysitters and home caregivers. Or to many thousands of workers of social cooperatives assisting kids with special needs.

The gold rush to reboot the government machine, and privacy

My previous post mentions as the lockdown is forcing italian Public Administrations (PAs), still with a paper-first mentality, to go digital in a hurry. Meanwhile, the birthplace of #opengov, #opendata and all that, is reverting to italian transparency procedures: “FBI has limited to snail mail public records requests during the pandemic. Funny.

Here, PAs can now accelerate digitization by purchasing new digital tools from startups and small businesses. This is unavoidable, because PAs were collapsing anyway, and now time is of the essence. Release early, release often, failure is good and all that. But worries of buzzword-driven wastes of money, increased dependence on foreign Big Tech, and throwing the baby with the bathwater are concrete, especially in schools: the quarrel of the day is “is it legal or not to not just give lessons but also run official tests online?”. There are also concerns about the urge to monitor everybody via smartphones, China-style, especially when the actual usefulness of such practices against COVID19 is not where many imagine.

Algorithms my foot

CNN says that Facebook has a misinformation problem in WhatsApp, but Facebook’s main problem is Facebook, and the general belief that AI and staffers can make it work as advertised. This is Facebook yesterday, blocking a link from a contact of mine:

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Say WHAT??? (click for larger version)

And this is why he is not happy about it:

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“Dear Facebook, you have blocked a message from me to a group dedicated to create Open Source Medical items, where I was pointing to a EU grant closing today. Congrats for the great job, please keep allowing masks ads flooding in my page, that’s really helpful!”

Remember this, the next time someone asks Facebook to monitor political ads. It is impossible, unless it goes so orwellian to make elections meaningless. To contrast fake news, remove instantness from social networks, instead. Much better than censorship.

Telecom infrastructures

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The lockdown could benefit Disney stockholders, since Disney+ will debut here on March 24th. Less than one week after the EU request, to Netflix and other streaming platforms, to reduce HD streamings, to keep the pipes working.

First world problems, for sure. But they remind me what I wrote in 2008: “I don’t trust P2P/user maintained internet access networks. Not as a mass solution or a complete last-mile replacement”. We need professionally managed, coordinated backbones and access networks to survive crises like this, that hugely increase data traffic. Really neutral ones, of course. That is the hard part.

Pandemics and biodiversity

You may have already read that destroyed habitats create the perfect conditions for viruses like COVID19 to emerge. Seen from here, this makes proposals to “rewild” Europe by landscape-scale restoration and CONNECTION of ecosystems look an overdue, really sensible public health policy, not just an environmental one.

COVID19 vs work. And money, of course

“An unintended consequence of COVID-19 is that social distancing might remain long after the threat posed by the virus subsides”. A friend of mine doing essential work (maintenance of building air conditioning systems, hospitals included) really hopes so, at least for workforces: “Now it takes me twenty minutes to commute, instead of eighty. If so many people could switch to telecommute so quickly, why the f..k weren’t they already doing it, instead of slowing down workers like me?”

Of course, he’s only half right. Many people have left the roads because of layoffs or forced vacations, not telecommuting. Rather than “the economy”, COVID19 is attacking (positively, I hope) the nature and ethics of labor and, unavoidably, the very nature of money, its creation and its ties with labor. Being broke and locked down, seeing the uselessness of many jobs, and fears of 2008-like “selective” stimulus plans cannot but increase, at speeds even higher than COVID19 infections, thoughts like:

  • “If america was attacked by aliens, our first response would be to lower interest rates” (M. Nguyen on Twitter)
  • What if Andrew Yang (and many others before him) was right?

What should fill the media now

I wish the media would pivot now. Maybe, instead of giving at least 80% of time to repetitions and discussions of health statistics and immediate emergency issues, they should use a good part of that time to discuss and explain how to improve things permanently after a unique moment like this: Universal Basic Income, work and taxes reforms, real innovation with appropriate technology, family support, debt jubilees, different healthcare, rewilding, fiat money, less fragile supply chains, whatever. No, wait, that is stuff reserved to election debates, not countering pandemics. No, wait again…

Unavoidable self promotion: I have been trying to connects several of the dots above for years. If you like how I do it here, please support it.

Last but not least: Why has Italy been hit so hard?

Many are wondering why Italy has had so many victims. The hypothesis I made in my previous post is being seriously considered by several researchers now, so here it is again, but expanded.

“COVID19 is deadly for older people and the italian average age is older than that of, say, South Korea” is only the cover of an explanation. What about: “Coronavirus causes more deaths in Italy because” (may God forbid me for stereotype abuse):

  • Italians live longer (also) because of still healthier food
  • Italians live longer because Italy’s public healthcare may suck, but it still is one of the best around
  • Italians basically neeed to have and offer constant physical contact as expression of afffection and friendship (PM Conte didn’t say “[When this is over] We will hug again” by chance)
  • As a class, italian grandparents are still heavily involved in the daily care of grandchildren (too often for the wrong reason, e.g. lack of affordable nurseries)

In one sentence, what about “Coronavirus hits Italy so hard because Italy, while having huge problems and flaws, is a place where life is still more human, and less lonely, than in most other places?”

This must not exclude reflection, and action, about whether we could have managed the crisis like South Korea, or not, or whether we are still in time to do it. But the question remains in my mind.

Answers left as exercise for the reader.

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